You could say that Western fashion arose in the late Middle Ages to be the enemy of beauty in clothing. Many people seemed to think so from the beginning. Since the late fourteenth century, new modes in the European dress of both sexes were the target of disapproval and derision, even outrage and hatred, in the writings of satirists and the clergy, usually for their new way of transforming the shapes of male and female bodies. During the period there was a new emphasis on ebb and flow, thesis and antithesis, progress and nostalgia—which had its expression in things like remarkable shoes with six-inch-long pointed toes, which soon shifted into equally remarkable shoes with eight-inch-wide square toes, or sloping narrow shoulders above flowing cloak-like sleeves, which soon hunched up into massive broad shoulders with sleeves like bolsters.

Once it came into vogue, the little white shirt frill that showed above the collar of a gentleman’s doublet had no choice but to become an immense starched millstone thirty inches across, bearing his head like a fruit on a plate, before it went limp and dropped like a big lace antimacassar across his shoulders. The idea that elegance in dress should be expressed in choices that had been happily made the same way for generations was replaced by the thought that nothing elegant should satisfy the eye for very long without changing, often to an extreme degree in one direction before shifting course. Beauty became even more famous for being fleeting.

In the sixteenth century, when the artists who went along with explorers and colonizers illustrated their travels, making known to the West the remarkable dress of remote peoples, European Christian fashion, however quirky and objectionable to moralists, still seemed more beautiful than the barbaric dress of the heathen. It was only in the eighteenth century that modern fashion—then expressed in rigidly curled male wigs and cumbersome cuffs with countless useless buttons, or in clenched female torsos with wired-out skirts upholstered in furbelows, along with rouge and patches for both sexes—began to be perceived as no more “civilized” than tattooed and painted skin, thick grass skirts, and thin batik wrappings, or indeed than lips and earlobes extremely stretched by the application of heavy ornaments. On the other hand, the traditional robes of the heathen Moors, Persians, Turks, and Chinese, with their uninterrupted spread of magnificent textiles and exquisite ornamentation, had enjoyed centuries of deep respect and considerable envy in fashion-bound Europe, often expressed in their adoption by the West.

Another powerful element in the enlightened European regard for exotic distortions has been shame at the fickle nature of modern fashion, when it is contrasted with the honest processes of entrenched tradition, however grim. Never mind the horrible details of Chinese foot-binding, or the slow torture of Burmese neck-stretching, or painful tattooing and scarification, or immense coiffures created with dung and mud: all such displays were at least related to ancient myth or cosmology, practiced from generation to generation, never the temporary effect of dissatisfaction and competitive vanity. It’s no wonder that beauty has often seemed to dwell neither in harsh tribal custom nor in frivolous modern modishness. Beauty in clothed human appearance, everyone always knew, lay in the shared look of effortless harmony and natural simplicity, the sort of thing Europeans had long since been associating with the sculptures of Greek antiquity, or with what Virgil said everyone had on in the Elysian Fields. Some French and English voyagers thought they might even have found the real thing in Tahiti and other bare-breasted, half-draped islands of the South Pacific.

Harold Koda, now curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, offers a way to synthesize beauty out of the disparate displays of vain and mutable Western fashion and those of aesthetically limited non-Western societies, by adding a third element—the most extreme works of contemporary couture, wherein some of the purely formal characteristics of the other two seem blended and transfigured. In his book, he shows us a row of three photographs: the back view of a present-day Dinka woman from Sudan, her head shaved, and wearing a jaw-high “neck corset” of colored beads and no visible clothes, so that we can see how many rows of beads rise up and dip down in the back; next to her, the front view of a naked Dinka man, with shaved head and shaved pubis, shows him wearing a similar necklace, which rises up and dips down in front; third, a 1902 painting of Queen Alexandra of England in a tight and low-cut white satin court dress, wearing a high coiffure and still higher coronet, gloves, fan, long veil, and diagonal blue sash with orders, and an immensely wide, multi-strand choker of pearls closely resembling the beaded ones on the Dinka, that rises up to her jaw and clearly dips down over her bare bosom and corsage in front, perhaps even in back. All three wear paired bracelets—we get the point, one frequently made in the past, about the patent barbarity of civilized European customs.


Opposite, Koda puts a full-page 1997 photo of a model striding on a runway in a John Galliano ensemble for Christian Dior, wearing what looks like a blend of all the other necklaces, but rising higher and hanging lower, this time in white beads that slither over the model’s naked breasts and upper body. She is otherwise dressed only in white lace trousers and a white top hat, of which the cylindrical crown is a carousel apparently made of sugar icing. She slinks toward us with her hand on her hip, her made-up face expressionless, and behind her you can see the crossed legs and intent faces of the spectators at a fashion show. This woman, however, is not to be thought of as wearing her ensemble in the same way the English queen or the Dinka couple are wearing theirs. She is animating it with absolute detachment and only for this unique live performance.

Just as certain tribal customs and certain excesses of fashion look similar but are worlds apart in source and character, this model is as distant from the fashionable queen as she is from the tribal Dinka. Koda is careful to explain that runway displays at Galliano’s level have very little to do with fashion—that is, with what is manufactured and sold to the current fashion-buying public. For that, there is a wide range of clothes, beginning with designer ready-to-wear at four-figure prices and on down to what is proposed for JC Penney, all of which have their own fashion shows. But market pressure is off these particular products of the imagination. They have entertainment value, prestige value, and an aesthetic character that aims to be consistent within each couture house, but many of them are not designed to be wearable except in highly exceptional circumstances, starting with the runway. Aside from the showbiz gear that Gaultier designed for Madonna, most of the extreme current clothes shown in the book and in the show were not made to be worn at all, unlike the historic and ethnic clothing.

Koda in fact proposes an independent artistic status for these creative works, not unlike the one occupied by extreme works of contemporary art created in unfamiliar media, some of them now directly including materials and other elements of dress: Christo’s draperies, for example, or Beuys’s felt creations. Both, he suggests, but does not show how, illuminate present sexual and social attitudes, or political and historical beliefs. In such a situation, beauty goes right back into the eye of the beholder, where some say it always lives. The truly attentive section of the public may have no trouble seeing it in these clothes, naturally in some of them more than in others. But Koda, to help people unfamiliar with this particular medium—those who may still think the models are wearing real fashion—has deconstructed the human body, abstracting its separate regions from the personal, social, or historical human creature.

Koda’s categories are “Neck and Shoulders,” “Chest,” “Waist,” “Hips,” and “Feet”; and we immediately notice that he has left out the head, a choice he confirms by omitting heads from most of the mannequins in the show. Feet are well represented by many pairs of shoes displayed by themselves, from towering clogs of varying provenance to three-inch envelopes for stunted Chinese blobs. But there is only one hat; there are no helmets, turbans, garlands, wreaths, or crowns in this exhibition, no masks, almost no made-up faces, and only one or two wigs—one or two hoods too, but only as parts of garments. It’s as if we were invited to consider the different zones of headless clothed statues, remembering that they are works of art.

After dividing up the body below the head, Koda may have hoped to show how extreme treatment of the neck, for example, such as we saw in the four illustrations, can appear as formal exploration of the purest kind, whether carried on over time by a whole society such as the Dinka, or momentarily by a small group to display its distinction—as at the French court—or simply inside the mind of one designer aware of historical and ethnological sources. Koda is careful to describe in the book exactly how the Burmese effect—a woman’s neck gradually elongated from childhood by being loaded with what becomes a yard-high stack of metal rings—is actually achieved by depressing the shoulders at the same time. He connects this effect to the extremely slope-shouldered fashions for both sexes in the early nineteenth century, again describing how it was achieved with strict, shoulder-strapped corseting.


He then shows the similarity of both to the long, metal-ring-laden neck and the sharply triangulated shoulders in the photograph of a model wearing a Galliano tweed suit with dramatically sloping shoulders from 1997.

En route he shows photographs of shoulder puffs, shoulder pads, shoulder wheels, shoulder spikes, turrets, and walls, each a part either of ancient tribal traditions or of passing fashion. Some pictures are of the underlying structures—wired-out balloons of stuffing or hoops joined by tapes—that once created puffed sleeves and full or bustled skirts; others are of modern designs that imitate these once-invisible devices rather than the outward shapes they created. He shows pictures that make the same comparisons using those thirty-inch Elizabethan ruffs and similar effects elsewhere in time and place, and using pinched waists and padded waists, suppressed breasts and augmented ones, hip extensions, buttocks extensions, belly swellers and belly flatteners.

Most of this concerns the forever contested female body, but we also see some photographs of stylized washboards worn on modern male chests, along with exaggerated male shoulders that have appeared across several cultural and temporal boundaries. In the book there are a few codpieces (here referred to as crotch pieces) shown in sixteenth-century paintings and suits of armor, together with mid-twentieth-century documentary photographs of naked men from New Guinea wearing long, stiff, and pointed penis cases apparently made of horn. In the show, detached metal codpieces and horn penis cases lie together in a glass case looking incomprehensible.

The head is left on everybody in the book, except in some shots of the exhibits themselves. The book and the show are thus very different, if only because groups of dressed and mostly headless mannequins are so different from sequences of remarkable pictures of people with definable faces. For one thing, there are many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cartoons lampooning fashion in both book and show, but in the show they have their own exhibition space as we enter. There we start with the detached view of the mode, consistently made comic by exaggeration—and made more formally abstract, stressing Koda’s invitation to disengage ourselves from any context. These cartoons, however, are spread throughout the book among the other pictures, mixed in with the portraits and genre works, looking like straightforward illustrations and sometimes discussed as if they were direct reflections of visual life. Such reflections, of course, even documentary photos, have their own subtle styl-izations; and this book repeatedly shows that pictures have great power over the way we see real clothed people.

The book contains examples from a century of glamorous fashion photographs, which have always put a magical spin on fashion, just as portraits by Holbein or Ingres or Van Dyck have done, and current composed shots are offered right alongside the TV frames from fashion shows. In both, the models wear fantastic headgear and makeup, focusing our eye on the individual, completing the look of the dressed body with the even more powerful and often more extreme look of the dressed head and its face. There are also many portraits of men and women reproduced from all epochs, each with its gaze and coiffure and sometimes beard. A few of these hang on the walls among the mannequins in the show.

But in the book the presence of the head makes the reader meet the eyes not only of those naked men in their penis cases, but of the Chinese woman in the “Feet” section, whose naked, brown, withered-potato stumps lie before us, emerging from under her silken hem; or of the ravishing, high-breasted Mme. Récamier in her 1803 Gérard portrait; or of the equally ravishing, low-breasted Nancy Astor in her 1906 Sargent portrait (both in the “Chest” section)—and we also eye a honey-blond fashion model boxed into a curvaceous, armpit-high nude torso, molded in smooth black leather and sporting bumpy black nipples. This is surely a wearable object if you felt up to it.

The book’s vivid interpretative pictures thus have their own pull, hard to square with Koda’s argument calling for the separation of chest, hips, and the rest in order to create aesthetic detachment. Instead a reader of the book is faced with an array of striking human beings, each staring at us out of a distinct milieu. The photographs of the objects alone—shoes and corsets, for instance—allow more leeway for detachment, and many of these pictured things show great intrinsic beauty. Otherwise, although similarities between certain distortions are inescapable, they still tend to look nothing but extreme, and beauty seems to exist mainly as a quality of the paintings and photographs, or of the girls and the guys.

The point is made better in the largely headless show. We may remember that Koda was responsible for creating and dressing the mannequins in the Armani exhibition mounted in 2000 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In it, each mannequin was nothing but a thrilling absence inside the dress—no head, but also no chest and back, no shoulders, arms, legs, or feet. Gloves, yes, and sometimes shoes; but the straps of evening dresses arched from front to back through thin air over a void, a woman-shaped nothingness miraculously filling the dress but invisible to the eye. The ambient personality was purely that of the dress itself, unencumbered by the additional overtones of a plastic dummy or wire armature suggesting a model. You could judge its character the more clearly, and you could also take it personally.

As in the Armani show, some of the couture garments shown in Koda’s book on canonically pouty and slinky models appear uninhabited in the exhibition, to their great advantage, happily without the see-through top hats or extraordinary hair or additions of material objects and substances on the face and the head. The same is true of the fifteen-foot-wide panniered dresses from the eighteenth century, which lack any Marie Antoinette headgear, patches, or pink cheeks, and of the bustled confections of the 1880s without piled-up ringlets of false hair. We see that this show is not meant to be about history, but about the strange shapes clothes have given to the human torso, and to the feet that hold it up. Once free from the mod-els and Marie Antoinette, we don’t have to think about whose torsos these are. Then what emerges is the real beauty of some of these extreme clothes, the sense of their capacity to beautify a real person, for example you or me.

There is a dress by Alexander McQueen for Givenchy that looks ridiculous in the book, where a hands-on-hips model wearing a silly hat is distractingly flanked by other shoulder- emphatic pictures. Perceived directly and by itself in the show, the dress is lovely, as refined as anything in the eighteenth century, its parts in harmony. A bolero made entirely of unfolded and overlapping little sandalwood fans—flexible and lacy—has been sculpted around the neck, upper back, and arms, making curved wings around the bare shoulders. Under this, two large and curving Japanese fish in blue-gray sequins have been asymmetrically applied to the front of a clinging gauze top that descends just below the navel to hip level.

Here the flaring sandalwood fans above are balanced by the deep, evenly swinging gores of a knee-length circular skirt of shiny silk, its surface stiffened with tucks that make diagonal patterns as it hangs, its curving edges echoing the edges of the fans. The colors are cream and sandalwood, and whatever color of bare skin is showing through behind the dim blue fish. You can imagine a friend’s head above it at a grand event, the skirt swinging, the wings flirting, the fish rippling; she could even sit down in it.

Several of the far less wearable contemporary dresses in the show also have undeniable beauty, despite the impossibility of imagining where they could appear. One of these is Christian Lacroix’s seventeenth-century Dutch sleeved and boned bodice, finely stitched in pistachio silk, paired with a long, closely draped Toulouse-Lautrec mauve skirt and train, the two linked by a writhing black feather-and-lace boa and similar sleeve trim. But there are many clothes offered here that are mainly comical: a straight knee-length yellow shift by Issey Miyake with what looks like a single large, shiny egg yolk applied to the behind; or Jean-Paul Gaultier’s full-length pink silk strapless sheath, of which the entire back is made of pink lacing that criss-crosses all the way to the floor, where the pink ribbons trail and drape. Long pink gloves are similarly back-laced, dripping their ribbons from the wrist. And then there’s Thierry Mugler’s form-fitting suit, which coats the woman down to the knees in gleaming black corrugated tire-treading, its peplum spreading out to form a whole tire that gracefully encircles her hips. A shiny steel valve projects from the tire somewhere near the left kidney in back; and another one sticks out from the right breast in front, so you can pump up the whole woman, not just her hips.

Our appreciation of this and many other ensembles here depends on there being no accessorized live model or mannequin inside. The Galliano tweed suit with its vast sloping collar, worn by the pictured model with two-foot black braids, a foot-high steel choker, and an intense face, appears quite unencumbered in the show. We can see it as another example of imaginative and precisely executed clothing design, with all the beauty of a perfect thing, giving us a sense of its possibility as a real-life garment. When we see something like Galliano’s suit standing next to historical clothing once owned and worn, we can forget that when the real lady of 1880 entered a reception room in the beautiful dress shown here, with her buttocks extended three feet by a bustle ending in two more feet of train, she found the room filled with similarly bustled ladies; but if someone now wore Galliano’s suit to a cocktail party, to say nothing of the tire suit or the egg-yolk dress, she would certainly stand alone.

I would complain that for this project, both book and show, the regions of the body have been too arbitrarily marked out, except for the feet. Legs lose out, for example, although there is one wonderful item—a pair of English Regency stockings with padded calves, which poignantly show how difficult it was for scrawny men to live up to the clas-sical bodily ideal before the adoption of the disguising trouser. Mostly, however, only the torso is chopped up, into what Koda with some pretension suggests is a version of the Surrealist cadavre exquis.

He does write that of course the fashionable body was always the sum of its modified parts; and despite dividing the body, his exhibition plainly shows that in most transformative schemes for clothing, the female waist tends to include the rib cage and often the hips, and that the male chest usually includes the male stomach—unless the term “chest” refers to female breasts, a category not on the list though discussed in the text, and for which many extreme special effects are displayed. Breasts have been given independent attention very often in human history, whereas hips usually include thighs, shoulders include arms, necks include chests, and so on.

It’s notable that in the West, female hips, belly, and behind have been artificially extended not primarily to add bulk to the female pelvis itself, but to support a variably shaped tent of skirt that would hide the woman’s entire lower body, obscuring the movement of her buttocks and legs and sometimes feet, making her seem to move as if by magic—an effect quite different from any hip, tummy, or bum extensions on their own. Those, of course, have repeatedly appeared on the popular stage, an extreme universe rarely approached in this book and show, although there are some images of pelvis-extending, leg-baring designs in the book that suggest the Copacabana girls of the past. Any idea that a larger understanding arises from considering the regions of the body separately doesn’t really work here, but the list offers at least an impersonal way to organize this intractable subject, when the point is to liberate the eye from historico-ethno-sociological modes of perception.

I am sorry that the great “Four Leaf Clover” dress by Charles James, a mid-twentieth-century Modernist masterpiece, has been shoved to the back where it can’t strike the eye directly, to make room for a famous recent “swan-neck” dress, and yet another Galliano, another McQueen. Other “extreme beauties” of the past are reticently displayed as if outmoded by their parodies, homages, or otherwise melodramatized new versions. I am also out- raged by one big-shouldered, formfitting McQueen jacket in the “Neck and Shoulders” room. We see it from the back, on which has been photo-printed most of the nude body of the Bad Thief from a Crucifixion by the fifteenth-century Flemish painter called the Master of Flemalle, also known as Robert Campin, the man who painted the Merode Altarpiece now at the Cloisters, the teacher of Roger van der Weyden, and a prime mover in the Renaissance art of Northern Europe. Other less identifiable bits from this and other fifteenth-century panels appear on the jacket’s sleeves, interspersed with patches of a painted textile surface that may come from the same source. The thief’s loincloth seems to be draping the wearer’s backside; his beautifully articulated naked torso strains upward along the wearer’s clad one, and just between the jacket’s shoulder blades appears the thief’s agonized face falling sideways against his upper left arm, where we see the rope tying him to his cross. Good heavens, what do you suppose is printed on the front?

This jacket shows how the exhibition reinforces the impulse to demonstrate a condescending possession of the past, to create the look of superiority in current works by cutting old ones to pieces, and then making the new ones out of carefully mismatched, stuck-together old parts, while uttering pieties about the deep meaning of this process for our time: the cadavre exquis idea. Once our time is past, of course, the eventual proof of any such meaning for works of art will be the beauty of the result. That’s if its beauty really means a mysteriously independent, satisfying, and self-propelling life, beyond the thefts, inspired inventions, and unconscious impulses that went into the work. Max Ernst managed this with collages of engravings in La Femme 100 Têtes and Une Semaine de Bonté; but there are many lamentable Surrealist and Dadaist works now consigned to the status of curiosities, incapable of taking one’s breath away, always only embarrassing. I think McQueen’s jacket is like one of those, just as I’m convinced that his sandalwood-fan dress will always produce delight.

Looking through the book, I was glad to find at least one contribution by Yves Saint Laurent, a short coat in bright green fox from 1971, a sad reminder that this designer has decided to quit the game. This coat shows that part of Saint Laurent’s heritage from Dior, for whom he worked, and Chanel, by whom he was inspired, was his readiness to go to the extremes the moment called for. Like those great forerunners, however, he owed his enduring success to the fact that he always thought about what women wanted. As Koda writes, “with rare exceptions, his most fantastical references are applied to apparel forms of comfort and ease.” Much in Extreme Beauty suggests that Saint Laurent is leaving the scene because we now expect haute couture designers to please only themselves.

This Issue

February 28, 2002